I keep my eye on her, watching as she stumbles her way through the crowd to the area allocated for 12 year old girls. I sigh as the tail of her shirt becomes untucked again, but there's nothing I can do to fix it this time.
I watch as the doors to the Justice Building slowly open, revealing Mayor Undersee and Effie Trinket. The escort to District 12 totters forward on her heels, careful to keep her pristine magenta jacket and skirt unwrinkled and her pale lavender wig in place. I can barely concentrate on the words being said though, or the video playing on the giant projector, my thoughts solely on Prim. It's her first year in the reaping, and I know the terror she's feeling right now. I've felt it every year for the last four years.
I hold my breath as Effie reaches a perfectly manicured hand into the glass bowl, her fingers trailing across and through the depths of carefully folded pieces of paper. Her hand flicks up, holding her selected paper aloft, it's pristine edges caught between her fingers. She slides her nail through the tape that holds it together, opening it carefully, purposefully.
It doesn't matter that Effie Trinket is assigned to the least desirable district. She knows how to put on a show for the cameras.
I close my eyes, waiting for the words to drop.
"Priya Gardener!" she finally trills, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I watch as the age group in front of me parts to let the small, dark haired girl go forward, tears already streaming down her cheeks.
Another Seam lamb led to the slaughter.
I try to be sorrowful, try to let the grief in, but the overwhelming relief I feel that it wasn't Prim – and that it wasn't me – takes precedence over everything else. But I only have a moment before I tense again, as I watch Effie switch to the glass bowl full of boys names, knowing that Gale's name is in there far too many times. My relief as the name that leaves Effie's lips doesn't start with 'G', however, is short-lived.
Oh god. I feel my knees wobble slightly, and I turn my head and stare at him, the shock evident on his face. He steps forward hesitantly, and I see his eyes searching through the crowd frantically, before finally stopping as we lock gazes.
The pain in his eyes is palpable, but I see something more there. Denial. Regret. Longing.
"I volunteer!" The words ring out across the square, and the gasps and cries in the crowd are audible. Peeta's gaze swings from mine, his whole body tense, and even from this far away, I see his fingers clench.
Aaran Mellark has stepped out from the crowd, his head high, a faint sheen of moisture coating his eyes.
Aaran Mellark has just volunteered to go to his death, in place of his brother.
The commotion that abounds through the town square is something foreign to all of us, and even Effie seems perturbed. She doesn't know what to do, and looks at Mayor Undersee for direction, although he seems as confused as she does. Eventually he tells her to allow the boy to come up, resignation and disappointment on his face.
I watch as Peeta gets pushed back into the group of boys by one peacekeeper, while two others escort Aaran up to the stage.
I don't know Aaran, I've never spoken to him a day in my life. But Peeta is another story.
I've never been able to shake the connection I have to Peeta Mellark, from the day long ago when he gave me the bread. I can't dwell on that, though, as I train my eyes on Aaran as he slowly walks up the stairs that lead to the stage. I'm sure it's only just hitting him now the magnitude of what he's done, what he's signed himself up for. So I can't help what I do next. I don't even think about it.
I partially step out of my line, in direct sight of the stage, raising the three fingers of my hand to my lips and reaching it out towards him, almost like a salute. It's as old as the district itself, this symbol. It means thank you. It means admiration. It means goodbye.
No-one is more shocked than me when every person in the square follows suit, and that our entire district acknowledges what Peeta Mellark's older brother – in his last year as eligible for the Reaping – has done. What no other person in District 12 has ever done before.
The mood in the district over the next two days is sombre, as always following a reaping. I watch the amount of visitors to the bakery from the edge of the fence, and I know the steady stream of customers is not just there for the bread.
Aaran Mellark volunteering for his brother had caused a stir in the Capitol, and they were already tipping him as a contender for the games, with his height and his strong build honed by years of wrestling. The sight of him smiling and waving with Priya as they were paraded through the Capitol was something I didn't understand. How can you be happy when you're almost dead?
I can only assume that old drunk Haymitch Abernathy, their mentor, knows what he's doing.
I feel the weight of the squirrels attached to the loop of my belt, something I'd set out this morning to catch with the intention of trading them with the baker. But now that I'm here, it doesn't feel right. While I know Gale will curse at me, and we can't afford to do it, I resolve to give the Mellark's my game. It almost feels like by doing so, we'll come full circle, and I will have evened things up with Peeta.
I hate the feeling that I owe something to someone, and part of me is disgusted knowing that I'm attempting to use the situation selfishly to my own benefit.
I slowly make my way over to the bakers' back door, hoping that it's not his witch of a wife who opens it. I raise my fisted hand towards the wood, but it swings open before I can knock, and I find myself face to face with Peeta. At least I think it's Peeta.
His face is drawn, his eyes empty blue shells, void of the life that I know normally fills them. The knowledge his brother has all but given up his life for his weighs heavily on his sunken shoulders. My hand, still raised, falls unbidden to his shoulder, and he stares at it. I feel like I should remove it, but before I can he raises his own hand, resting it atop mine, the weight of it strange and foreign against my own.
"I-I brought these for your father," I mutter, looking down at the squirrels. His gaze follows mine, and recognition registers.
"Oh. Oh of course," he replies, his voice hollow, dropping his hand and stepping back. "Just let me get him so he can trade with you."
"No!" I reach out and clasp his arm as he turns away, and he halts, looking at me questioningly. "I want you to have them." I remove them from the loops with my free hand, holding them out to him. He glances at them, then back at me, and his eyes harden to blue ice.
"Because you feel sorry for us? Because you pity us?" he spits out. I recoil, shocked at his response.
"No! No! I…" I trail off, unsure what to say. I look at him, watching as his lower lip trembles. "We all just feel the need to do something sometimes, Peeta. And there aren't necessarily always strings attached." I don't want to directly allude to the day he gave me the bread, but I hope he understands my meaning. I think he does, and I see the tension that has built in his shoulders subside.
"I'm sorry. You're right. Thank you, Katniss," he says softly. He reaches out and grasps the squirrels in his hand, carefully placing them on the counter closest to the door. He looks back towards the front of the bakery, then back to me. "Would you…. Would you mind walking with me?"
I'm a bit surprised. Before today, the only interaction we had ever had was that short time with the bread, and I'm sure he has other people closer to him that he could talk to. But I don't feel right saying no, so I nod, shoving my hands in my pockets. He closes the door quietly behind him, and falls into step beside me. I'm not sure where he wants to walk, but I head towards the district fence. It's away from the crowds that are milling about town square, and at least we're close to the woods, which makes me feel a lot more comfortable.
We both trudge along, mirror images of each other with our hands in our pockets, our faces turned to the ground. I'm beginning to wonder whether there was even a point to this when he suddenly speaks up, his voice cracking on every second word.
"I haven't told anyone what he said to me before he left." I look at him, confused.
"Aaran?" I ask. He nods. "Why, what did he say?" He's silent, and I wonder if he's concerned that he's said too much.
"I can't tell my parents. They'd never forgive me," he whispers, and now I'm concerned. What would Aaran have said that would have such repercussions on Peeta? I'm not sure why my own pulse hums nervously as I wait for him to speak. He kicks at a rock with the toe of his shoe, and the longer he draws this out, the louder I can hear my heart beating in my chest.
"He told me that I was the best of us, so I deserved to live," he says quietly. I'm confused. Is that really such a bad thing for him to say? Hard for Peeta to hear? Sure. But awful…. I couldn't reconcile it. "He said that it only made sense for the bakery to come to me and Ethen, as he's the oldest and I'm the most talented." Rough, but it still doesn't strike me as particularly unforgiveable. "He said that as I was the only brother in love, I should get to experience the opportunity to be with that person. He wasn't in love, and he'd already….he'd already visited the slag heap." His voice broke again, and I close my eyes as I imagine a young man telling his younger brother he sould live so that he could experience 'love' of all things. Shit. I have no idea how to comfort Peeta, especially as I still don't understand the severity behind Aaran's words.
"I'm not sure why you can't tell those things to your parents, and why they wouldn't understand," I tell him, as gently as I can. He turns to me, his eyes full of grief.
"The girl I love is from the Seam," he says, and the sincerity and longing in his voice is evident. This finally makes some sense. Mrs Mellark is well known for her hatred of the folk from the Seam, and if she knew her son had been allowed to live for the love of his girlfriend from the wrong side of town…
"I understand," I tell him. "But you don't need to tell them that last part if you think it would cause problems."
"I don't think my dad would mind," he muses quietly, "But the wound is just so raw at the moment. I'm afraid to bring anything up. Our house…. It's like a tomb. No-one talks. No-one does anything except eat and sleep and watch the footage from the Capitol. I feel so… empty."
I'm struggling watching this young man, one who had always seemed so friendly and full of life, beaten down by these Games. I have never agreed more than I do now with the ruminations Gale has against the Capitol every time we hunt.
"You can talk to me," I find myself saying. "I'm not sure what help I can be, but if you need to…." I trail off, surprised by the fact that I'm actively volunteering to talk to someone.
"Really?" he asks, and I see the first flare of life I've seen all afternoon in his eyes. Well, I can't take it back now.
"Yeah. Sure. Why not? If you need to… just let me know. I'll probably be back soon enough to trade with your father."
"That – that would be nice. Thank you," he says, before turning away. "I'd better get back. They're probably wondering where I am." He tips his head, and smiles softly, before turning away.
I let him go, and continue to follow the fence line back to the Seam, thinking that I may have finally evened the score.
What I don't expect to happen is to see Peeta Mellark every day. Each morning I make my way to the bakery with any game I have left over after trading at the Hob, and leave with my quota of bread, Peeta at my side. His father doesn't say anything, just has a small, resigned smile on his face every time we leave. I don't know whether his mother knows, although I doubt it. If she wouldn't be approving of his Seam girlfriend, she certainly wouldn't be approving of a friend from the Seam.
If a friend was even what I was.
I find myself by his side when we watch the games on the big screen in the town square of an evening. I still resent the fact that we're forced to watch this by the Capitol every day, but I leave the ranting to Gale. Right now there's just a part of me – a part that I don't really understand – that wants to make sure I'm there for Peeta if, or when, anything happens to Aaran, regardless of my dislike of the Capitol.
We're both there when the games begin. We're both there when the tribute from 3 murders Priya in her sleep on day 2. We're both there on day 3 when Aaran exacts revenge for his fallen co-tribute.
But it's not until Aaran has been in the Arena for 5 days, and the odds are looking in his favour, that it hits me.
Where is this girlfriend that Aaran is risking his life for, so that Peeta can be happy? Why the hell isn't she here, doing all the things I'm doing?
"Hey, Peeta?" I ask softly one day. We've taken to sitting in the meadow after our morning walk. We rarely talk, but I think he appreciates that I don't spend all my time pitying him, or trying to cheer him up. I wouldn't know how the hell to. He looks up at me, his chin resting in his hands, his eyebrow raised in question. "Where's your girlfriend?"
I see his eyes widen, and his chin drop from his hands as his elbow falls from his knee.
"Huh?" he asks a little frantically.
"Where's your girlfriend? The one Aaran….." I trail off, not really wanting to finish. "Why isn't she spending time with you?"
"She didn't break up with you or anything over this, did she? Coz if she did, she's not worth it, and Aaran will have done this for nothing," I tell him, getting riled up at this girl I don't even know. What a bitch.
"Seriously, if I know her, I'll go and speak to her if that's what she's done-"
"KATNISS!" Finally he blurts my name, his cheeks flushed.
I open my mouth to argue with him, then realise what he said. It's you.
I look at him, my eyes wide in shock, and I can see the embarrassment in his. A funny feeling flutters in my stomach that I don't understand. The nerves in my body seem to buzz and my shoulders feel heavy. I can't even speak. I'm the girl he loves.
"Look, I'm sorry. Maybe I should have made myself clearer. I thought you might have gotten it when I told you that first day we walked. Then, when you didn't act any different, I just figured that you didn't, and that it shouldn't matter, and that I should just be happy that I'm getting to spend some time with you. Just like….just like Aaran wanted. He's known for a long time that I like you, and was always at me to make a move." I'm still a little shell shocked, but he continues, rushing through his words. It's the most animated I've seen him in over a week. "I've thought about you ever since you sang the Valley Song when we were 5. You took my breath away, with your red dress, and braids, but hearing your voice, your voice, was like my world settling into place. The minute you sang, I knew I was a goner. Katniss, when I think of you my whole life flashes before my eyes, and you're in every scene." He looks up at me, and must sense my shock, my surprise. "And shit, now I've scared you. Please don't go," he begs, although I haven't moved a muscle.
"Is that….is that why you gave me the bread that time?" I whisper, finally finding my voice.
"No. Well…. Yes. Katniss, after your father died, everyone could see what was happening to you and Prim. You were dying. And I couldn't let that happen. So when I saw you out there that day, it was a sign, that I could help you. So I did."
"And you got beat for it." He lowers his eyes shamefully, but nods. "Peeta, can I try and tell you a story? It might not be very good, but I need to tell you some things." He looks up at me, confusion in his eyes, but he nods again.
I tell him what the bread did for us, how it gave me the hope to carry on, how following that day I remembered what my father had taught me as a young girl, how to hunt, how to determine what plants were edible or not. How I met Gale as a result of that, and how between the two of us, we managed to feed our families. Not to a degree that we ever felt as comfortable as those from Town, but we rarely had to go to bed at night anymore with empty bellies. How, as a direct result of the bread he gave me, I was able to support my family. How I had disappointed myself by never saying thank you, but that was only because I didn't like owing people, not that I didn't feel grateful.
He doesn't interrupt me once.
Finally, in my own disjointed way, I finish, and look up at him. His eyes are still sad, but despite this, I wonder why I had never noticed before how beautiful they were, how bright the blue was, how honest they were.
"I had no idea," he says softly. I shrug.
"It's not like we spoke before this week," I remind him. He nods, and I watch his hands play with the tufts of grass that spring up around his feet. I suddenly feel nervous, and spring to my feet. "We should head back," I tell him, and head back toward town without waiting for him to rise.
Things have shifted, and I don't know what to do.
As the days go on, our routine doesn't change, and Peeta doesn't mention our conversation in the meadow. I get the feeling he's waiting for me to bring it up, but I wouldn't know what to say anyway.
Capitol reporters have made their way to town, as they normally do when they're down to the last 8 – which Aaran has made - and I try not to be anywhere near town square while they are. They're there in their brightly coloured outfits, strange make-up, hair teased and moulded until they almost resemble mutt Capitol birds. They're absurd; there's no other way to describe them.
Eventually, though, they want to speak to Peeta. And despite his numerous attempts to avoid them, he finally gets roped into an interview. It's the only morning we don't take our now set-in-stone walk.
It's strange how a routine can develop in such a short time.
I wait in the meadow for him, knowing he'll come to me eventually. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think of Gale, and wonder what he thinks of my arrangement with the baker's son. It shouldn't bother me, but I know a small part of me worries what he thinks.
"Sorry Katniss, sorry," Peeta finally rushes up to me, out of breath, and drops to the ground on his back, shading his eyes - rimmed red from his obvious tears - with his hands. "They talked forever."
"I thought you liked talking?" I retort, raising my eyebrow. I've found he prefers it when I'm sarcastic with him, rather than sympathetic.
"Yeah, but not about what they wanted to talk about," he mutters.
"You know they were here to talk about Aaran, though," I tell him softly. We don't talk about Aaran too much when we're not watching the games. It's just too hard for him. And it's hard for me, knowing that Aaran may give up his life for a relationship that will never happen.
I haven't broken that news to Peeta yet. He doesn't need to hurt any more.
"Yeah. I guess," he hedges, and part of me knows he's not telling me everything.
"What aren't you telling me?" I ask.
"They asked about you."
"What?" He sighs, and props himself up on his elbow. Despite the obvious effects his grief his having on him, both physically and emotionally, he looks so effortlessly…well, I can't think of a better word than attractive, that my resolve waivers for a second.
But only for a second.
"Someone must have mentioned about us watching the viewings together every night to the reporters, and they realised you were the one who raised….. Well, anyway, we haven't hidden it. It's not like we thought we needed to, I guess. They…they wanted to know if my girlfriend was helping me through this time."
"I'm not your girlfriend," I automatically reply, my heart thumping in my chest as his words sink in. When I see the glimmer of sadness in his eye, I immediately want to retract what I just uttered. Don't kick a man while he's down, Katniss. "What did you say?"
"I said that you weren't my girlfriend, that you were a friend from school. But that yes, you were helping me because you still treat me like a normal person, unlike everyone else. Of course, my mother was ropable the minute she heard, so I shot out as soon as I could. It's not going to be good when I return home."
"Shit, Peeta," I mutter for lack of anything else. We sit in silence, not really sure what else to say.
We don't speak for the rest of the afternoon.
Despite the awkwardness of our earlier conversation, I still go to the town square that night and sit with Peeta, waiting for the screening of the interviews. I'm interested to see how awful they make district 12 look on the vision like they do every year, but for once, they don't.
Our dreary, desolate district looks picturesque and romantic, with a softness to the vision that I don't understand. I don't know what they've done, but it doesn't look where I live. The minute the interviews with the Mellarks start, though, I know why.
The questions are relentless.
How long has your son been dating her?
Do you approve of the match?
Wasn't it romantic how she paid tribute to her love's brother, for giving them the gift of being together?
Is she helping you through this difficult time, Peeta?
They conveniently leave out the part where he explains we're just friends.
I glance at Peeta, and can see the shock in his own eyes. He turns to me, apologies falling from his tongue. I had no idea. I didn't know they spoke to my father and mother about it. I'm so sorry.
But now I'm conscious of all the looks being sent my way, the pointed gazes, the mutters of disbelief. Another Everdeen getting their hands on a Merchant. I quickly stand, ignoring Peeta's pleas not to leave, not to leave him. I turn and run.
He doesn't follow.
The next 3 days, I let Gale trade with the baker, and I don't go to the Meadow. I don't go anywhere except the woods, losing myself in the sounds of the animals, the rustling of leaves, the sensation of peace that envelopes me the further I get from the district.
Maybe Gale's right. Maybe we should run away.
But what about Peeta? A little voice in my head asks, and I try to ignore it.
I check the snares we left this morning, and find two fat, plump squirrels waiting for me.
These would be good for Peeta, the voice tells me insistently. I sigh, frustrated at my own thoughts, but free the squirrels from their trap, and loop them to my belt. I continue to hunt, but I don't catch anything more.
It's almost time to go to the square with Peeta. Jesus, this damn voice won't leave me alone.
I stomp my way back home, trying patiently to be as polite with Prim and mother as possible for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Prim keeps sending me looks loaded with confusion, and the minute mother goes to bed, I turn to her.
"What is it, Prim?" I sigh.
"Did you have a fight with Peeta?"
"Did you have a fight with Peeta? You normally watch the viewings at night with him, and you haven't done it the last couple of days." I can't do anything but stare at her. "Well?"
"No, I didn't, Prim. I don't have to do everything with Peeta."
"But what, Prim?"
"I thought he was your boyfriend." This time my jaw drops. "Isn't he? And after the interviews…..I just figured you were going to tell me in your own time. You've never been very good at sharing how you feel. And it's been so nice to see, Katniss. You're so different whenever I've seen you with him in the town square. You smile. You look…happy." A buzzing begins in my ears, and my heart drops.
Shit. How is my 12 year old sister able to make me realise I've fallen in love with Peeta Mellark in these last two weeks, while I've been completely oblivous?
Just the last two weeks? Try longer than that, Everdeen.
I slump into the closest chair, and rest my head on the worn wood of our small dining table. I feel Prim's hand rest gently on the back of my head and stroke my hair. It's what I'd normally do for her, and the fact that the tables are turned brings an ache to my throat that's as unfamiliar as the butterflies that have taken up residence in my stomach.
Suddenly the front door swings open, and Gale is there, out of breath, a thin layer of sweat visible on his skin.
"He's dead, Catnip."
I hadn't paid enough attention the last few days, through my own wallowing, to even realise that the games had reached their final three. I listen as Gale stumbles over the words as they catch in his throat. As strong and tough as Aaran was, he was no match against the girl and boy from 1, who stalked him, pitted their strengths and wills against him as a combined force, and murdered him in cold blood.
The girls victory yell soon turned into a scream as her co-tribute turned on her, and was announced the victor.
All's fair in districts and war.
My heart aches for the young man who had given up his life, so close to being free of the possibility of the Hunger Games, just so his brother could live. Because he was 'the best of them'. Because of the bakery. Because of me.
I feel like dying.
I can't deal with both Prim and Gale's eyes staring at me forlornly, and I sprint from the house, heading to the only place I can think of going right now. And the minute I get there, I realise I wasn't the only one who thought so.
He's sitting there, legs crossed, head in his hands, sobs wracking his body, the pale moonlight shifting over his golden hair and turning it silver. I don't think twice, don't care. I kneel beside him, and wrap my arms around him, drawing him in until his head is resting on my shoulder and his arms encircle me back. I don't say anything. I don't need to. Right now, this is all he needs, all I need.
I need him to know that I am here for him.
I lose all sense of all time, and it's not until his sobs begin to shallow out and fade that I chance a look down at his face.
It's streaked with tears, red with the effort of crying, and the pain in his eyes is more than I can bear. It's in this moment that I realise I was stupid to have ever thought I didn't feel anything for him. It didn't matter that I had never had any intention of marrying or having children.
I loved Peeta Mellark. And after today, I realise I have no reason not to take this god-damned life in two hands and make something of it.
He glances up at me, and begins to wipe at his cheeks, at his eyes, and begins to pull away.
"I'm sorry, Katniss," he mutters, drawing himself back into a ball, his knees pulled against his chest.
"Don't be. There's no reason to be. I'm sorry, Peeta. For everything. For not being there for you tonight. For running away. For….for Aaran." I hear a sob break through, and I reach forward, resting a hand on his forearm. "Please, Peeta. Let me help you."
"Why?" he asks, his voice muffled.
"Because….because…." I trail off, realising that although I want to say I love you, I can't. I'm not good with words.
So I show him.
I rise up on my knees, reaching both my hands to his cheeks, raising his face so we can see each other. I brush at a lock of his hair, tucking it behind his ear.
Then I lean in and kiss him. It's soft, and sweet, and tastes like his tears. I can feel his body hitch, and his hands move from around his legs to rest on my shoulders, pulling me closer. It's awkward, leaning against his raised legs, my knees digging into the dirt, but I don't care. All I care about it trying to show him how I feel.
How I want to make sure that one day, we fulfil his brother's dying wish.
He pulls away, his red-rimmed eyes searching mine. I'm not sure if he finds what he's looking for, but he stands, pulling me up with him. He stares at me for a moment, and I wonder if I've done the wrong thing. I only wanted to comfort him, reassure him. The sigh that leaves his lips is deep, and filled with whatever pent-up emotion he had remaining. Then his arms come around me, pulling me close. I've got my answer.
I wait at the edge of the meadow three days later, watching as the sun begins to drop behind the mountains, it's orange glow setting the woods on fire. I've avoided the bakery out of respect for Peeta's family, but we'd agreed to meet at the meadow today. We'd said nothing of our kiss since that night.
I hear him before I see him, and turn. The grief is still there in his eyes, but if there's one thing the games does, it prepares you for the death of your loved one. You say your goodbyes the day of the Reaping.
It doesn't make the ache, or the grief, any easier though, and I swear to help him through it.
I don't move towards him, I wait until he's in front of me, close enough to touch. One of his arms bands around my waist, the other reaches into my hair, pulling my mouth to his in a kiss that's deep and desperate, full of longing and need. I twist my hands into the curls at the nape of his neck and hold on for dear life.
Because that's what this is.
This is life.